The Emotional Memory of Music

You’re standing in a shop and a song comes on the radio that makes your heart do a little dance and you smile. Perhaps it reminds you of a happy wedding, a joyous celebration or a ridiculously fun weekend with friends.


“No Life Without Wife” from the movie “Bride and Prejudice”, once performed (with costumes) at a raucous girls’ weekend away. Still makes me laugh.

You’re sitting in the car and a song comes on the radio that makes your heart skip a beat and tears appear in your eyes. Perhaps it reminds you of a significant loss, a painful goodbye or difficult time in your life.


“Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Byrds, played and movingly danced to at the funeral of my sister and niece.

Music has memories. The most potent of these are emotional memories.


“Deep Peace” by Bill Douglas from the album “Celtic Twilight”. I compiled a playlist of Celtic music as a ‘birthing tape’ for when my boys were born. This song always makes me think of them. (Unfortunately, I actually forgot I had the tape when I gave birth to my first child. With the second one, he arrived so fast the tape didn’t make it out of the bag. It was only with the third child, who took his sweet time coming, that I got to enjoy the whole playlist. Many, many times…..)

Songs can be the most likely to bring up memories, as we connect not only to the music but also to the lyrics. Words can have power.


Sometimes it may even take you a while to realise why a song or piece of music is making you feel the way it is because the emotional memory of it remains strong while the mental memory has faded with time.

The emotional memory of music can also linger for much longer than the situation that created the emotion. A song may have triggered a strong reaction because of the space you found yourself in at the time and the connection you made to the lyrics. Years later, you may no longer be in that space in your life but hearing the song can still elicit the same reaction as the first time you heard it.


“Here We Are” by Belinda McArdle. This is written and sung by the amazing woman who runs the community singing group I attend. When she first introduced this song, I was at a stage in my life when I didn’t know what I was doing, what I was supposed to be doing or where I was going with my life and I felt I was wasting the gifts I’d been given. This song made me cry. That was four years ago and until very recently, if it came on my playlist in the car, it would still make me teary. This despite the fact that I have now found my way and I am happy and fulfilled in my life. I am no longer in the place I was but the emotional memory holds tight.

I do believe it’s possible to change the emotional memory of music. If the new connection is stronger than the previous, it is possible to change one type of memory for another.

I recently attended a vocal workshop facilitated by Belinda and it was an amazing experience of finding newfound confidence and trust in my own voice. After the workshop, we sang the chorus of Here We Are together and it was a powerfully emotional experience for me. And thus, the emotional memory of this song rewrites itself to a new one. This song now reminds me of what my voice can do if only I trust in it.


What song or piece of music holds strong emotional memories for you?



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64 thoughts on “The Emotional Memory of Music

  1. I’ve not considered that the emotional memory of music can be … over-written, H. Yours is a sound argument for !
    I’ve always been a fan of Stevie Wonder’s – ever since he was ‘Little’ Stevie Wonder; and there is a very great deal of his music that figures in the life I had with Stringer. I should love to add the “Innervisions” CD(s?) to ‘Somgs in the Key of Life” … Living for the city is a topic very relevant to me right now.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I would agree that the emotional memory can be overwritten. That has happened to me with several songs that I introduced to my wife and to our daughter. In some cases, songs that I had stopped enjoying, due to a previous attachment, have become favorites again.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s wonderful that you’ve found your voice, Heather, and are becoming more confident in it. Don’t Stop Believing that you can sing…a salute to one of my favorite Journey songs. Their tunes always make me smile and rock on.

    When I was going through my divorce, I played Miranda Lambert’s “Revolution” album over and over again. So many of her lyrics were emotionally close in what I was feeling at the time, such as the song “Dead Flowers.” I still listen to the album because now it’s simply enjoyable. When I listen to the aforementioned song, I thank God I am where I am…in a much happier place.

    In general, though, I love music. Love, love, love. I can’t imagine the world or life without it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • +1 to your last comment. Life would be infinitely poorer without it.
      I’m glad you can still listen to that album and find joy in it.
      My confidence in my voice is still a work in progress but I have that memory to hold onto (and the song to sing to remind me). 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Such a well-written post, MOSY. True that it can take a while to realise how a certain song can mean much to us. A song can certainly take us back to a moment in time, to a feeling that we once felt and not longer felt. A piece of music can remind us of what we had and perhaps lost, and maybe bring that back to us once again.

    I’ve always had a thing for 90s music, think 90s boybands and Britney Spears. They bring back fond high school memories and a time when you mucked around and could get away with quite a few things. More recently, I like Lindsey Stirling. I discovered her music a few years ago – she is a dancing violinist, playing electric, dubstep kind of music. I listened to a lot of her earlier music while i was writing the first draft of my yet-to-be-finished-I-don’t-know-when book. Very inspiring to me 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Mabel. It’s a post I’ve wanted to write for a long time, prompted by my experience of Here We Are. That song kept popping up in my life in recent weeks so it was time to put it out there. Happy to hear you have some good song memories in your life.

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  5. What a fantastic post. Your comments about your birthing tape reminded me of my own Celtic selection of Loreena Mckennet and Enya music, also compiled for the birth of my daughter.

    Can’t imagine life without music. I have it on every day and without fail it lifts me out of dark moods, it makes me feel happy driving in my car (and silly too as I sing along at the top of my voice) and in my house when I use it to energise myself when I’m doing boring housework! 🙂

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  6. I’m so glad you’ve found your path now and are happily running along it making new discoveries and enjoying a fuller life! 🙂 I wonder what you’d choose as the soundtrack to your life if someone asked…not just a moment, but the entire life you’ve lived so far……good question?

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    • That is an excellent question. I think, thinking back on my life so far, that the soundtrack to my life would have to be one of those…what do they call them?…. mashups. You know, when the music segues into another completely different piece of music. It’s the only way to describe a life that’s been full of so many different things. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • A very good answer! I’m thinking most of us would need a mashup to encompass our journey…..however, what different mashups they’d probably be! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  7. You know what I love about you? Well one of the things anyway is you honesty. Your willingness to be vulnerable and share so much of yourself. I was in tears listening to ‘Turn Turn Turn’ and imagining the heartbreak. I wonder if music memory is transferable. My guess is I will think of you anytime I hear that song and send a hug across the miles.

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  8. To build on Sue’s comment, when I saw Turn, Turn, Turn on your list, I did a little gulp. It is such a powerfully evocative piece of music to begin with – without having the additional emotional overlay. I too will not hear it in quite the same way again.

    I don’t think music is a big memory trigger for me. Certainly there are some pieces that ‘bring me back’ to a point in my life, but not in the same way as you’ve described.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I love this comment. It actually didn’t occur to me that others would not have the same emotional memory for music but it makes total sense. Music is a big part of my life and of who I am so of course I would have strong emotional reactions to it but for people who don’t see music the same way, it would have less of an impact. Thank you so much for that perspective. I feel further educated. Thank you. 🙂

      (And I’m going to confess that I didn’t listen to that song when I put it in the post. I just couldn’t.)

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I still think that nursery rhymes are some of that music still resonating with me today. ‘Three blind mice’ is one of those I can never get enough of. Of course, Mahler’s slow movement in the movie ‘Death in Venice’, still is one of my most favourites of all times.

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  10. So glad Joanne made that comment because I was starting to wonder if I was the only one without musical triggered memories…although it would be special to have and I envy you your extra sense. I never thought of the way Turn, Turn, Turn would feel at a painful time but I’ll hear it differently now. So glad you’ve sound your voice and continue to raise it high.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I was really glad of that comment, too. And also for yours. It’s what I love about putting a thought or a theory out there – I get a much broader perspective and it helps me see sides to the issue I might not have realised. Thank you for being part of that. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Jeff Buckley’s Grace album…I started listening to his music (via radio station news bulletin) not long after he decided to take a swim in the Mississippi River and didn’t resurface. It was a very bittersweet introduction to his music.

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  12. Very well put. One of your gifts, thankfully. I am grateful for this post, and also for the fact I have never worked out how to get the sound to work on the computer. Don’t think I could have coped with hearing your choices. Bet – see previous comment – with an extra ‘h’ for the grammar nerd!

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  13. For me it’s the Andante from Brahms Piano Concerto Number Two. I went to a concert many years ago with my then girlfriend and I had a… I don’t even know what to call it… a perfect moment while sitting there with her and listening to this beautiful piece of music. I’ve had a few similar moments since then, but this was the only one strongly connected to music.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. You never fail to engage me with your posts. I’m not sure I associate music with any particular events over the last 20 years, possibly because I don’t really listen to a lot of music. But Carol King always takes me back to a tiny shoe box bed-sit in an attic room where I had my heart broken by my first real love; Chicago’s “If you leave me now” is another tearjerker as it was always playing just when my first husband walked out on me and two very small children; “Total Eclipse of the heart” by Bonnie Tyler still has the power to make me well up as that was always on the radio when my second marriage was in tatters “every now and then I fall apart…” and writing this has just made me realise that all my music memories are attached to sad moments in my life. Maybe not having any recent ones means I am a much happier person?

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think it’s partly that and partly that to me, it’s the times we are struggling and looking for answers or at least seeking the feeling that someone understands what we are going through that we are more heightened to hear words we need to hear and that’s when songs can become so powerful. I also would have definitely connected strongly to a song more often in connection to a sad or difficult time than a happy one.

      Thanks, Jude. I always welcome your insight and contribution and I very much appreciate your sharing in this conversation. 🙂


      • I do have two songs that bring back happy memories – Crowded House and “Weather with you” takes me back to the bus I was on in Namibia on my camping tour, and “Dancing in the Moonlight” by Toploader has me back dancing in the moonlight on New Year’s Eve the same trip with sand spiders and scorpions! I think those two songs are memorable because we were a captive audience with limited CDs and we heard them over and over again 😀

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  15. I would have put myself in the “music doesn’t really trigger strong emotional memories” camp, but with the exception of the music I associate with the time around my son’s birth. I don’t listen to much music in my day to day life, preferring silence to allow my thoughts to take form. But I have very specific emotional memories attached to the Counting Crows album ‘August and Everything After’.

    We went to a Counting Crows concert when I was about 7 months pregnant, and it was so loud the bass was vibrating my ribs. I ended up sitting the gig out in the First Aid room because I was so worried about the effect of the noise on the boy-child. I loved the songs but not at volume! After he was born I went into an awful time of depression, caused, in part, by his sleeplessness.

    When our baby son woke howling in the night we used to put the Counting Crows album on while one of us walked around with him. He seemed to find it soothing and would go back to sleep — for a little while anyway.

    The sleeplessness got better after a year, and only came back intermittently after that, but for years afterwards, if my son cried out in the night, my stomach would clench and I’d begin to hyperventilate. Hearing Counting Crows, particularly the first three tracks of that album had a similar effect on me.

    Interestingly, I’ve recently started listening to the band again, and while the songs still remind me of the boy-child as a tiny baby, I don’t have the strong phyiscal reactions any more. I guess that whole episode in my life has dimmed, and time has worn the more jagged edges off memory. Now, I’m quite nostalgic for a time when my son was small and warm and could be held in the crook of one arm.

    Thanks for this post; for sharing your ideas (and your growing confidence — yay for that), and for the discussion that it has provoked.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow. That’s a rough start. And I totally get the effect that that music would have had on you. But how wonderful is it that the emotional memory is changing? (And, boy, I am so with you on the nostalgia. Going through much the same thing with mine recently.) Thank you so much, Su, for sharing your experience and being part of the discussion. It really is my favourite part of blogging.

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  16. Great thoughts, Heather. I hadn’t thought about emotional musical memories being over written. Certainly deeply moving memories of my life can be flicked on by certain music, such as Edith Piaf and Marianne Faithful, the Beatles and many more. What did you think about Thomas Dylan winning a Nobel Prize?
    Our house has suffered a lack the past few years due to our dog howling when music is played. We can’t work out if she’s singing or objecting.

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  17. Pingback: The Emotional Memory of Music — Master of Something I’m Yet To Discover | Therapy-cooking

  18. It’s really interesting actually because.. I was born in ’94 and when I hear certain songs on the odd occasion from the late 90’s I remember I had either heard them at home or in the car. On the way to help dad run some errands or at home while mum did housework. I even recall the specific places I was when I heard these songs. And back then when I was probably around 5, 6 or 7 years old I didn’t really have any feelings towards these songs I just remember the places, and the wonder and the curiosity and even boredom lol. It’s really hard to describe. But in a way hearing those songs is like opening up a portal to access memories you wouldn’t have otherwise. Interesting stuff indeed. Please give my blog a read if you have time I am going to be posting music related stuff there. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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